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David Tennant is monstrously good as RD Laing in Mad To Be Normal. For the uninitiated, R.D.Laing was a Scottish psychiatrist who became this mythic rock star like figure in the 60s and 70s culminating in establishing a community of individuals with varying psychiatric conditions at Kingsley Hall. He used LSD and promoted self healing. Aside from being a non linear biopic, the film questions what is normal; what the mainstream do?
R.D. Laing’s larger than life personality is captured David perfectly by Tennant supported by a stellar supporting cast including Laing’s lover Angie Wood (Elisabeth Moss) and patients Jim (Gabriel Byrne), Sydney Kotok (Michael Gambon). Mad to Be Normal is co-written and directed by Robert Mullan.
There will be criticisms that the script jumps around there is a lot of poetic licence taken with events that took place in Laing’s life. The answer has to be this is cinema, deal with it. There’s a definite trend in the film biopics currently being released, for example Hidden Figures, to spread the focus on both the central person and also the supporting characters so in Mad To Be Normal we see more of Angie. However, whilst there is more of Angie on screen we don’t necessarily understand her. It is frustrating not to be shown her back story.
I prefer biopics that aren’t linear and some people may find this hard to deal with. Laing is already famous, enjoying rock star fame. How famous is famous? Well, Laing appeared on stage with Bob Dylan and The Grateful Dead. It’s refreshing not to see him as a child or young adult. We are catapulted into his story resplendent with the dense fog of cigarettes and whisky. Laing’s idea was that schizophrenia is the internal struggle between two identities. He would know a bit about this struggle as the film clearly shows him as alcoholic and clinically depressed and probably in as much need of help as his patients.
Mad To Be Normal makes for contradictory and uncomfortable viewing and that is where the power lies. Mad To Be Normal lingers well after the credits have finished rolling. You’ll have flashbacks and question what you’ve seen. Laing may have been a maverick and ostracised by the establishment yet 30 years techniques introduced by Laing are being used to treat various psychiatric conditions.